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Educate a Child … Transform the World

June 7, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 7, 2015

Matthew 19: 13-15

There is a change in our scripture this morning. Our gospel reading is going to the taken from Matthew 19, verses 13-15, page 21 in your pew bibles. Hear now the Word of God in the Words of Jesus, as found in Matthew 19.

Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

With these familiar words, I want this morning to build a frame around our worship and celebrations over the coming month. There is a lot happening, and it will be helpful, I hope, to see it all as part of our Presbyterian commitment to nurturing children with quality education.

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So what’s going at the church this month? Well, this afternoon all are invited to a time of outdoor fun and activity at Cranberry Lake Preserve, our nearest county park. The program is called Frogs ‘n Dogs and is an opportunity to go hiking, ponding, exploring, and crafting and then make s’mores and cook hot dogs over a campfire. We’ve held several outings like this now because there is no better place for children to integrate what they are learning elsewhere than in nature’s classroom, which also has lessons of its own. And later this afternoon Sedinam Anyidoho is going to deliver the Valedictorian Address to her classmates during her high school commencement. Congratulations Sedinam on all of your hard work, and our prayers will be with you today.

Next Sunday morning our children are going to lead us in worship, sharing with us what they have learned this year in church school, and we will take a moment to publicly thank their teachers. Afterwards we will go outside for an intergenerational picnic together. And that last word, together, is important. The picnic is not just a time for adults to fellowship together while watching the kids play; it is an opportunity for all of you to acknowledge how you have seen these kids grow in the past year and to tell them that. Of course, you can play too!

The following week, on Father’s Day, four students will be confirmed in a service that will mark their growth in faith, their year of study with the Reverend Lynn Dunn and others, and the active mentorship offered by more mature church members. These four students met with the church council a couple of weeks ago and shared with us their statements of faith. The statements were not only unique expressions of who these four young people are; they were reflections of what faith looks like in this community.

And on June 28th we will baptize little Daniela N—-, acknowledging God’s call upon her life and welcoming her into the covenant community. As part of that baptismal service we will renew our baptismal promise to guide and nurture all children with our own words and deeds, with our love and prayer, encouraging them always.

I have spent the better part of my week reflecting on these words of Jesus about children, and upon our baptismal promise to guide and nurture them, and I want FIRST to say that I see this being lived out by this congregation, and I want to be sure you see it too.

But SECONDLY, I want to say something about public education. There was a time when you could ask almost anyone what Presbyterians uniquely valued, and the answer would be (either the doctrine of predestination or) our commitment to public institutions, especially public education. It is not a stretch to say that John Calvin was the first inventor of public schools and the first advocate of education as a public good. It is no surprise that we have so many teachers in this congregation, for every age from nursery school to graduate school. In fact, the Presbyterian Church claims, “educating the human mind is the fulfillment of the “like abundant” promised in the scripture.”

A few weeks ago we collected a Pentecost Offering to help children and youth at risk. We raised almost $1000 as a congregation to support young adult volunteers, youth ministries, and advocacy for early childhood intervention, as well the Mayor’s Scholarship Fund for children in White Plains to attend city camps.

But we didn’t, at that time, describe what it means for a child to be “at risk,” or how that risk is distributed.

I do not need to tell you that there is a link between lack of education and poverty.

  • Children constitute the most poverty-stricken age group in this country at 17.7 million, with 6.5 million living on less than half of the poverty line income. These children are at risk and find themselves mired in circumstances that thwart their hopes and dreams.
  • There is a direct connection between educational inadequacies and poverty. A child that drops out of school has only a 12 percent change of ever holding a job with benefit and pension. In order to effectively end poverty, children must have the basic skills that will allow them to emerge as strong, productive citizens. Schools cannot accomplish this alone.

But our schools are in crisis mode.

  • only 18% of schools in the United States meet basic reading standards.
  • The US Department of Education reports significant teacher shortages in math, science, special education and bilingual education.
  • We know that high quality early childhood education experiences make a difference in lifelong learning and social success, yet
  • 25% of poor and minority children who enter high school not earn a diploma.[1]

There are many, many, reasons for this. Just ask the teachers in this congregation, and be prepared to listen for a while. But I especially want you to understand a new phenomenon that some are calling the “school to prison pipeline.”

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and our prisons and jails are overwhelmingly filled with African American and Latinos. Again, the paths to prison for young African-American and Latino men are many, but the starting point is often the school. Students of color regularly face harsher discipline and are more likely to be pushed out of school than white students.

  • 40% of students expelled from US schools each year are black.
  • 70% of students involved in “in-school” arrests or referred to law-enforcement are black or Latino.
  • Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended the whites.
  • Black and Latino students are twice as likely to not graduate high school than whites.

And here’s a big number: of all the males in state and federal prison, 70% do not have a high school diploma.[2]

Jonathan Kozal, the great educator and activist, used to speak about what he called “savage inequalities” in our education system, but lately he’s been witnessing what he calls “the restoration of apartheid education” and written about it in his recent book The Shame of the Nation. (Barbara, this would make good reading for the book group this year.)

Jesus said, “Let the children come unto me, do not hinder them.” And we have promised with every baptism to guide and nurture these children with our own prayers and example.

When I think, really think, about what these statistics about children in poverty, our schools and our prison system mean, I want to cry. And then I want to shout. And then I get angry and I want to do something.

At our last General Assembly, meeting in Detroit, the Presbyterian Church (USA) launched an ambitious program called “Educate a Child… Transform the World.” The idea is that educational for our children and advocacy for our schools and their teachers is an intervention in the systems of poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. The goal is to improve the quality of education for one million children by the year 2020. The program will focus on two targeted areas: early childhood education, especially childhood literacy, and reducing adolescent dropout rates – both the traditional dropouts – students who actually stop attending school – as well as the “in-school” drop outs who simply stop trying.

Why these two areas? FIRSTLY, because interventions here can make a significant difference. Researchers tell us that a child’s chances of success or failure can be calculated by their fourth grade reading level. Anything, anything that improves literacy in these early years will transform the opportunities for these children to live out of poverty and out of jail. And student who drop out of high school are not eligible for 90% of the jobs available in the US. But SECONDLY, the program focuses on these two areas because congregations are well placed in our communities to offer extra-curricular help to young children and adolescents.

I had lunch on Wednesday with Alonzo Johnson. Alonzo is an urban pastor and served the Oak Lane Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for many years. And it was there, in downtown Phili, running youth groups for neighborhood kids and advocating for them with their families, their schools, the police and sometimes the courts, that he developed a passion for education. He is now our mission associate on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church advocating for “Educate a Child … Transform the World.”[3]



Our lunch at the Presbyterian Unite Nations office was an opportunity for pastors, teachers and advocates both to learn and to share stories about what is working in our communities. And there is a lot working. Barbara Horan told me yesterday that the current issue of Presbyterians Today is filled with short stories of congregations making a difference by volunteering as tutors, organizing after school programs, partnering with public schools to purchase school supplies, developing summer lunch programs, offering a steady supply of children’s books to family shelters, attending school functions, adopting an elementary school in their area, and much, much more. To which I would add learning about our local school board and voting on the school budget.

Our own congregation has operated a Nursery School for more almost 60 years. When it began it primarily served the children of church members, but today it serves our neighbors by offering the most affordable program around. On Friday the four-year olds will graduate, which is extra special for me because I have been visiting their classroom regularly to read to them and get to know them. The graduation ceremony will take place at 9:15 on Friday morning in our church house, and I would like to invite as many of you join me as possible so that you can witness why this school continues to be a part of our congregational life. Over the next month the church council will be electing new members to the Nursery School Board, and I would welcome anyone who would like to take an active role in improving educational opportunities for children to speak with me.[4]

After worship today, the Godly Play classroom is holding an open house upstairs so that we, the members of the church, can see what our own kids are learning and where they are learning it. I encourage you to stop upstairs for a few minutes before getting your cup of coffee. It will be worth your time.


My friends, Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them.” And we promise with every baptism to guide and nurture these children with our own prayers and example.

I am more than ever aware of the challenge we are faced with and the work we need to do.

[1] The information here comes directly from a pamphlet prepared by the Child Advocacy office of the PC(USA):

[2] The information here is taken directly from a very helpful infographic that was part of the presentation at the Presbyterian United Nations office described later in this sermon.




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